LONDON – In 2014, more than 190,000 people risked their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa to Europe. Some 3,500 lost the gamble, dying as they tried to traverse what has become the world's deadliest frontier. There can be no doubting that some who undertook the perilous journey did so simply to search for better-paying jobs. But the origins of those attempting the trip indicate that many are political refugees, not economic migrants.
The majority of those who crossed the Mediterranean last year come from Eritrea and Syria. Many have been formally recognized as refugees by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in the countries to which they initially fled. Some 90% of those who apply for asylum in Europe are granted some sort of protection – a further testament to their status as bona fide refugees.
It is time for the European Union to separate the discussion of the crisis in the Mediterranean from its broader immigration debate. The policies, language, and response to the events unfolding on the EU's southern border must be different from those concerning the voluntary movement of job seekers from one safe country to another. Indeed, the proper context of the discussion is European countries' obligations under international refugee law.
The policies put in place by the EU and its member states are directly responsible for the plight of those who die attempting to cross the Mediterranean. Efforts to discourage refugees from arriving have not diminished the number of people who are granted asylum in Europe; they have merely made the process of being granted refugee status more random and dangerous.
Every country in Europe is party to international treaties that recognize the rights of refugees to seek asylum and not be forcibly returned to countries where they will be unsafe. And yet, despite calls by frontline Mediterranean states to establish systems to improve the handling of the crisis and share the burden, little is being done to make things safer for refugees or more manageable for the countries in which they arrive.
The countries neighboring Syria and Iraq are facing the largest inflows of refugees fleeing the violence there, and the UNHCR has appealed for assistance in resettling a limited number of the neediest. So far, however, the response from the countries that can most easily afford to take in refugees has been pathetic. Even worse, many people who, as recently as a few years ago, would have easily obtained permission to study, work, or visit relatives in Europe are being denied visas simply because of their refugee status.
There is no reason to require people seeking an asylum hearing to run a gamut of desert crossings, abuse by smugglers, beatings, extortion, rape, and exploitation – or to have them experience the trauma of watching their friends and family die along the way. Doing so is cruel and inhumane, and it violates the spirit of all refugee, human rights, and immigration laws.
In the past, resettlement programs in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East screened people to establish their status as refugees; assessed their education, skills, and family relations to determine where they might be integrated most easily; and worked with European, North American, and Australian governments to find them new homes. In the 1980s, such programs helped thousands of Ethiopians, Vietnamese, and Argentines, and a look at the communities in which the beneficiaries were resettled reveals that the vast majority have become self-reliant taxpayers.
There is no reason that something similar cannot be done for those fleeing violence and persecution today. If asylum seekers were provided with opportunities to present their claims in the countries where they currently find themselves, they would not be forced to risk their lives at sea to reach Italy or Greece. Eritreans could file applications in Khartoum for asylum in Sweden, Germany, or the United Kingdom. Syrians in Cairo or Beirut could do the same. The claims could be prioritized and processed in a regular manner, and the refugees could arrive in Europe healthy and ready to work or study.
The crisis in the Mediterranean cannot be managed in a piecemeal manner. The financial costs of patrolling its waters and rescuing those adrift are exorbitant. The loss of lives is inexcusable. But we do not have to wait until the root causes of displacement – state failure and civil war – are addressed. We need only to find the courage to create a system in which desperate people do not have to risk their lives to apply for asylum and resettlement.